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Breakthrough on the Strip

International lobbying, political maneuvering bring Cuba's Havana Night Club to Vegas.

September 04, 2004|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Normally, Las Vegas is not a tour stop for artists coming from Cuba to perform in the United States. But there's nothing normal about the visit of Havana Night Club, a 50-member ensemble that has become the first Cuban act in almost a year to overcome tough U.S. restrictions to play in this country.

The group opened at the Stardust Resort & Casino last week, 23 days later than planned and 11 members short. But the enthusiastic audience in the Wayne Newton Theater on Saturday night remained largely unaware of the entertainers' two-year struggle to get here, one involving top government officials, high-powered lawyers, Hollywood celebrities and political intrigue that evoked Cold War memories.

Against the odds, the dancers, singers and musicians of this little-known company had dribbled into the country in small clusters as their travel papers were processed. Until the last minute, their arrival was so uncertain that choreographer Kenny Ortega had to run through rehearsals with stand-ins onstage.

Once the curtain went up, however, the exuberant, multiracial performers didn't miss a step and showed no signs of strain. In an ambitious, two-hour musical revue, they offered a sweeping overview of the history of Cuban music, from its primal rhythmic origins to its modern fusions with rap. The sets, designed by Michael Cotten, evolve from a jungle to a colonial town to a flashy '50s nightclub.

The Havana Night Club is believed to be the first group from Cuba to play Las Vegas since the 1960s when Castro ejected the mob from Havana, a former casino capital. And the Stardust, with its infamous mob history portrayed in film, served as an ironic site for the performance.

The Las Vegas casino was also the venue where illusionists Siegfried and Roy, who are presenting the Cuban production, launched their Las Vegas careers 28 years ago. Watching the show from a center booth in the terraced theater last week was an obviously delighted Siegfried Fischbacher. Asked how the group managed to accomplish a feat that has eluded more famous Cuban artists for almost a year, the beaming entertainer responded in his German accent: "I must be a real magician."

It may not be magic, but the group's U.S. appearance certainly involved tricky legal and political maneuvering. Members arrived here not by sleight of hand but by virtue of a concerted international lobbying effort.

Even among Cubanophiles, this group was relatively anonymous until news reports started filtering out of Cuba last month that the Castro government allegedly wouldn't let them leave. With opening day looming in Las Vegas, group members reportedly defied officials and vowed to make it to the United States with or without the government's help.

The troupe and its leaders were portrayed as daring Davids who stood up to Castro's Goliath. Skeptics scratched their heads. The story didn't make sense -- especially because the Cuban government eventually let the company members apply for exit papers individually, rather than as a group.

Suddenly, there was heavy interest in "Havana Night Club -- the Show."

Nicole Durr, the group's artistic director, says the artists simply had a dream to perform in the States and doggedly pursued it. She says even the U.S. State Department, which had refused the group entry in February, found it hard to believe that the group was truly independent in a country where almost every artist is represented by agencies that are part of the Ministry of Culture.

"I will probably be the first independent [promoter] and the last independent that ever existed in Cuba," Durr says. "I attribute this to me being a woman, because they never took me seriously. I'm a German, I'm a blond, and it's a machismo country. And they thought 'Ah, let her do it. Let her rehearse.' "

Now, with the Las Vegas show set to close Sunday night, rumors are swirling about a possible mass defection by the dancers and musicians.

Durr denies knowledge of that. However, she says she's worried about a handful of key members, including a top dancer she calls "a little Nureyev," who remain in Havana.

U.S. officials in Washington and Havana declined to discuss the specifics of the group's visa applications. But a State Department spokesman suggested the case does send a message: "What it tells the Cuban government is that artists who are identified with the government will not be allowed to travel to the United States."

Political intrigue aside, advocates of cultural exchanges with Cuba say the Havana Night Club case does not help their cause. They don't begrudge the group's success, but say it only makes the system more confusing.

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